Sunday, March 04, 2007

The gods of education

Neil Postman, in his book "The End of Education," structures his book around the idea that education may serve many different "gods." He uses that term to represent the idea of an ultimate purpose of education--the story we tell ourselves that justifies all our decisions around how to educate our children. He points out that one popular god is the god of Economic Utility. (This is the god summoned by the poster many of us saw on our high school teachers' classroom walls--the drawing of a huge garage in the foreground with the back ends of numerous expensive cars peeking out, and a sunset over the sea looming in the background, all in the service of the motto "The result of a good education")

The god of Economic Utility story...tells us that we are first and foremost economic creatures, and that our sens of worth and purpose is to be found in our capacity to secure material benefits. This is one reason why the schooling of women, until recently, was not considered of high value. According to this god, you are what you do for a living--a rather problematic conception of human nature even if one could be assured of a stimulating and bountiful job[....] Goodness inheres in productivity, efficiency, and organization; evil in inefficiency and sloth[....]

The story goes on to preach that America is not so much a culture as it is an economy, and that the vitality of any nation's economy rests on high standards of achievement and rigorous discipline in schools. There is little evidence (that is to say, none) that the productivity of a nation's economy is related to the quality of its schooling....

Those who believe in it are inclined to compare the achievements of American schoolchildren with those of children from other countries. The idea is to show that the Americans do not do as well in certain key subjects, thus accounting for failures in American productivity. There are several problems with this logic, among them the difficulties in comparing groups that differ greatly in their traditions, language, values, and general orientation to the world. Another is that even if it can be shown that American students are inferior in some respects--let us say in mathematics and reading--to students in certain other countries, those countries do not uniformly have higher standards of economic productivity than America. Since 1970, the U.S. economy has generated 41 million new jobs. By contrast, the entire European Union, whose population is close to one-third larger than that of the United States, has created only 8 million new jobs. And all this has occurred during a period when American students have performed less well than European students. Moreover, it can be rather easily show from an historical perspective that during periods of high economic productivity in America, levels of educational achievement were not especially high. (28-29)


MC said...

I don’t think that you can deny that education leads to greater economic viability, but I agree if you are only promising economic gain as the choice for a job, it will most likely lead to a job choice rather than a vocation choice. It always bothers me how certain outsiders try to address education with an economic model-I think Bush is trying to force accountability through test scores which he uses as a performance rating, which is flawed in many ways (doesn’t allow exemptions for kids with special needs, results in teaching the test rather than the regular curriculum, etc…). Steve Jobs is the latest person who thinks he has the business model cure:

Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs lambasted teacher unions Friday, claiming no amount of technology in the classroom would improve public schools until principals could fire bad teachers.
Jobs compared schools to businesses with principals serving as CEOs.
"What kind of person could you get to run a small business if you told them that when they came in they couldn't get rid of people that they thought weren't any good?" he asked to loud applause during an education reform conference.
"Not really great ones because if you're really smart you go, 'I can't win.'"
In a rare joint appearance, Jobs shared the stage with competitor Michael Dell, founder and CEO of Dell Inc. Both spoke to the gathering about the potential for bringing technological advances to classrooms.
"I believe that what is wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way," Jobs said.
"This unionization and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy."

A true capitalist-it’s all the labor union’s fault. Hmmm how about paying teachers more, so that all of the goods ones don’t leave or so that they can attract new talented people who, in the past would have choose other fields for greater financial reward. How about making class sizes smaller so that there is a great teacher to student ratio? I guess none of these would result in great profit margins for shareholders.

Here’s another business model approach why don’t we outsource education to teachers in India and pay them half the salary and the profit margins would go up. And then the share holders can give a bonus to the principals for the more efficient performance and making education more profitable.

Eric said...

Your scathing sarcasm is on target, but I do have to agree with Jobs on one thing: true school reform will not happen until administrators can fire bad teachers.

MC said...

I agree that the deadwood needs to be cleaned out, but I think there are better ways to do that than attacking the teacher's union. Illinois was successful in clearing out the deadwood by offering early retirement, I think this approach could be effective in Washington state as well.

Eric said...

That would solve the problem for now, but not for all time. And I'm not advocating gutting the union. I just advocate that the union pursue something less than inviolable tenure.